What Everyone Should Know About Sensory Integration

Sensory processing issues and difficulties faced by a select group of children and adults have gained more acceptance and understanding in recent years. The constant sensory bombardment in their everyday environment can lead to their sensory systems getting over stimulated or going through a sensory overload that can result in a person having a shut down. This shut down can manifest either in an active manner where we see the child or adult either have a meltdown or suddenly becoming very quiet almost appearing unresponsive. Again, this is not being under -responsive but rather the child or adult has become overwhelmed. I’d also like to point out that there is a difference between meltdowns and tantrums which I’ll address in more detail in an upcoming blog.

A big key factor to remember is that meltdowns are due to a reaction of feeling overwhelmed where there is way too much sensory input coming into their sensory systems such as sounds, tastes, smells, sights, textures which upset not just children but adults as well. There is difference between tantrums and meltdowns. In a tantrum a child has the ability to control that emotion, where you will notice the child can stop in the middle of a tantrums to observe if the parent/ caregiver is watching them. When the desired item or toy is given to them the child, they can or will be able to immediately stop the tantrum.

A meltdown is different as it’s is not in the child’s or adult’s control, it is a result of trying to process too much or many sensory inputs at the same time. For instance, it is like going to a carnival where it can be overwhelming and overstimulating for most children and adults after some time. This is just a glimpse into the everyday world of a sensory challenged child or adult. The discomfort and negative experience can make these children and adults avoid going to certain places like malls, the subway, the airport, school or even work. Think about it, these places have tons of people and you cannot control the environment where there might be a different smell which might be too strong, people bumping into each other because it’s crowded or talking loudly which might hurt the ears of a sensory challenged person because of the pitch of the sounds.

For children and teenagers, going into the cafeteria in school can be overwhelming because of the smells, the sounds of plates, cups, and eating utensils hitting and the sounds of children playing and laughing can be overwhelming. For this reason, schools can be a place these children may shy away from or it becomes a struggle to get a child ready for school. For a sensory sensitive or over responsive child, playing in a playground or amusement park may become a challenge as there may be many loud and unpredictable sounds they cannot control such as laughter, screaming children or the unexpected crying of a child. I once had a teenager I was treating who refused to enter my therapy room when the other therapist I was sharing my therapy space with had an infant, toddler or younger child. When I asked him why he was apprehensive, he told me the sounds of children speaking in high pitched voices or crying hurt his ears so he’d prefer not to come in. He would become anxious when younger children such as his younger cousins were around him.

These sensory children also find the park sensory challenging as it can be both visually and tactile overstimulating with other children running around and children bumping into other children while they are playing. In the playground, the different equipment elicit different movement experiences such as coming down a slide or walking up a rope ladder, swinging high or coordinating on the monkey bar. These children may seem”bossy”, needing things to be done in a certain way or may appear clingy to a parent or teacher as they need the world to be in a certain way for them to be able to function well in it. These sensory experiences can be overwhelming for them and it’s usually out of their control as its stemming physiologically. There is now a growing body of knowledge that is showing that their autonomic system- sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work differently in these children. This is where trained sensory integration occupational therapist can assist with helping the child or adult find out which of their underlying sensory systems are affected and design individually tailored sensory strategies/ adaptations to best fit the needs of that child or adult.

There seems to be growing acknowledgement both in the US and internationally of the sensory challenges faced by these children and adults as they navigate through everyday activities that is both taxing and sometimes over stimulating to their sensory systems. This is not bad behavior or these individuals trying to be challenging. It’s rather a way to protect themselves from the overwhelming sensory bombardment. Huge steps have been taken in the right direction to make the community more inclusive for these individuals with sensory challenges This is the result of the tireless efforts of organizations, research and parent groups that have advocated for the needs of these sensory challenged children and adults. We now see a growing number of places in the community acting as agents of change for those with sensory needs by creating a sensory safe and friendly experience for these children and adults. These resources in the community have proactively trained their staff in recognizing sensory difficulties and how to manage a sensory situation when there has been a sensory overload. Listed below are a few sensory friendly resouces:

Miami International Airport Multi-Sensory Room

We all know how going to a busy airport waiting in line and waiting for your flight can be over stimulating. So this airport has paved the way in making it more sensory accommodating as these children wait to take their flight.

American Airlines Holds Mock Flights for Children with Autism


This trial run helps children with autism better anticipate and understand what is expected when taking a flight such as waiting in line, going through security and the experience of being on a plane ready for take off.

Oregon Zoo launches new sensory inclusive program


We know every child enjoys going to the zoo with the school or with family and friends. The Oregon Zoo are training their staff to recognize guests with sensory needs and how to manage a situation when there has been a sensory overload. The zoo also has available to guests, bags equipped with noise canceling headphones, fidget tools, verbal cue cards and weighted lap pads. They also provide an app for social stories to assist in anticipating what to expect in the zoo.

Seaworld Orlando Water Park is a Certified Autism Center


The water park provides specific information about the different attractions and accommodations to help guests make informed choices of what would best suite the needs of the child or adult. The water park also has a quiet room with adjustable lighting for taking a break and regrouping.

A Dental Clinic For Special Needs in Phonenix


Lets’s face it not many of us like going to the dental clinic but it’s even more challenging for a child with sensory issues. But we know how important dental hygiene is for our overall health. Many children with sensory difficulties struggle with brushing their teeth and having dental work done. This group of dentists have come together to make the sensory accommodation necessary to help these children with physical and intellectual disabilities ease into having dental work done on them.

Sensory Friendly Films- AMC, Regal Cinemas, Frank Theaters Cine bowl & Grille


Movie theaters such as AMC, Regal Cinemas and Cine Bowl have partnered with Autism Society to make it sensory accommodating and friendly where the lights can be turned up or the sound turned down, there is also opportunity to move around, shout or even sing. The sensory friendly film program is available on the second and fourth Saturday which is family friendly and Tuesday evenings is forthe mature audience. Check out your local theater listings and check out #AMCSensoryFriendly

Sensory Friendly Malls


Most of us know how overwhelming it can be going to a mall and this can become even more intense during the holidays. Although not comprehensive, I have listed a few places that provide sensory accommodations to make that mall experience a lot more enjoyable for our sensory children and adults.

I plan to have this as a growing resource and welcome ideas or other resources that you may know of that I can add to this list. Please subscribe to be on my newsletter and share your sensory story or journey. If you have any topics of interest, let me know and I will address them on my blogs.

Join me on my next blog on Understanding Sensory Integration!